Chemotherapy for Cancer Treatment Could Soon Be Unviable Because of Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs, Doctors Fear

Cancer doctors fear superbugs which can't be treated with antibiotics will soon remove chemotherapy as a treatment option for their patients, a survey has revealed. Cancer patients are more vulnerable to infections because the disease and its treatments can stop the immune system from working correctly.

Of the 100 oncologists in the U.K. surveyed between December 20, 2019 and February 3, 2020 by the Longitude Prize—which was established to help tackle antimicrobial resistance—95 percent said they were worried about the effect superbugs could have on their patients.

An estimated one in five cancer patients need antibiotics during their treatment, according to existing research cited by the authors of the report, and cancers including multiple myeloma and acute leukaemia can't be treated without them.

The survey revealed that 46 percent of doctors believe drug-resistant bugs will make chemotherapy unviable. Some cancer treatments, which the report didn't name, will be obsolete in five years, 28 percent of the cancer doctors predicted. A further 39 percent forecast this would happen within the next decade, and 15 percent in two decades.

Daniel Berman, global health director of Nesta Challenges which runs the Longitude Prize, explained to Newsweek that the researchers didn't ask about specific and individual types of treatment approaches, as "all patient care is individual and multilayered, involving many types of different co-treatments and therapies.

"However, since we know chemotherapy suppresses the immune system, leaving patients vulnerable to infections, we did want to explore this one further," he said.

Four in 10 (41 percent) said they had seen a rise in patients developing drug-resistant infections in the last year, with 23 percent of their cancer patients developing an infection during treatment on average.

As many as 65,000 cancer patients are at risk of catching a superbug infection after having surgery in the U.K. in this decade, the data suggested. Among the doctors surveyed, 5 percent of their patients who had surgery developed an infection which didn't respond to antibiotics.

A total of 86 percent of the doctors said the bugs Staphylococcus, E. coli and pseudomona put cancer patients at the most risk of serious harm. The research also highlighted frustrations clinicians have with the way infections are diagnosed, with 60 percent saying laboratories take too long to identify them in their patients.

Berman said in a statement: "Oncologists are right to be concerned about growing levels of antibiotic resistance being experienced by their patients post-surgery or those undergoing chemotherapy. We cannot change the rules of biology to stop superbugs appearing but we can slow their development and improve infection control and prevention."

The research comes as experts try to stem the rise of bugs which can't be treated with antibiotics. According to the U.N., at least 700,000 people die each year from drug-resistant infections. Research cited in the report states that figure could spike to ten million by 2050.

Berman highlighted in the report: "No new class of antibiotics has been discovered since the 1980s and the lack of market incentives for research and development has led the pharma industry to largely abandon projects developing new treatments.

"Even with significant subsidies for research and recent efforts by the U.K. and U.S. to increase payments for new antibiotics, the market is still sluggish and recent antibiotic [research and development] biotech bankruptcies have rung alarm bells amongst the medical community."

Berman told Newsweek we all have our part to play in stopping antibiotic resistance getting worse, including by listening to healthcare professionals who tells us not to use antibiotics unless necessary.

Citing data released late last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur in the US each year, and more than 35,000 people die as a result, Berman said "we can conclude that U.S.-based oncologists will share the same concerns as their U.K. counterparts."

For cancer patients worried by the findings, Berman stressed: "Today, patients on chemotherapy can be assured that the vast majority of infections can be successfully prevented or treated with antibiotics.

"This research is rather a wake-up call to say that we need new diagnostic tests so that we can better deploy antibiotics to ensure that they keep working. If resistance levels continue to rise, the problem will become more acute."

Berman added: "Ultimately, antibiotic resistance can affect anyone, of any age, anywhere in the world and these figures should act as a wake-up call to us all."

Emma Greenwood, director of policy at the charity Cancer Research U.K. told Newsweek, "Drug resistant infections are a huge threat to the lives of patients and future generations. Many people with cancer rely on antibiotics, as chemotherapy and surgery can leave patients prone to infection. And if urgent action isn't taken, cornerstone cancer treatments could become ineffective and our progress in treating cancer could be undermined."

This article has been updated with comment from Daniel Berman, and Emma Greenwood.

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